The California state legislature is currently entertaining a bill that would make it legal for homeless people to live in city parks, sleep in parked cars, to cook, bathe and relieve themselves on public property, and to panhandle with impunity.
The Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights and Fairness Act (AB 5), the brainchild of Assemblyman Tom Ammiano of San Francisco, is a monstrosity of run-on sentences, grandiose pronouncements, and baffling non sequiturs, all composed in a verbose, convoluted & euphemistic language that only superficially resembles English. In and of itself, the composition of AB 5 shows why our nation is suffering slow strangulation by legislation.
The actual proposals and underlying intent of AB 5 are extremist, threaten to disrupt civic cohesiveness, erode the quality of life, and undermine the rule of law, while offering little of substance to the homeless.
With their mild climates, profusion of charitable groups, and lax attitudes, California’s cities prove hospitable to those who live permanently on the street. Current PC conventions refer to such people as “the homeless”. In the past, they’ve been known as hobos, vagrants, or bums (derived from the German Bummler, or ‘drifter’, and akin to the Irish term ‘traveler’.) “Homeless” was coined to elicit empathy by conjuring the image of otherwise respectable people & families temporarily displaced by bad fortune. Homeless families, though, tend to avail themselves of shelters, and their average stay is three weeks — enough time for them to sort out their problem and arrange for a place to stay.
The vast majority of people living on the street do so on a permanent basis. Most are addicts and/or mentally ill, some are runaways. For various reasons, they decline offers of temporary shelter, and cannot or will not work toward finding a regular home. Homelessness is their preferred state of existence. A surprising number of individuals and advocacy groups feel that weakening or abolishing vagrancy laws is an adequate solution to their problems.
Mental Diarrhea as Legislation
AB 5 begins — though it’s hard to say where or even whether Ammiano’s mental diarrhea has a beginning, middle or end — with the fallacious argument that, since California had unjust ordinances in the past (e.g. the so-called Ugly Laws prohibiting “people with ‘unsightly or disgusting’ disabilities to appear in public”), any ordinance that makes it hard to be a vagrant is also unjust. He notes that, while the California constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, disability, orientation etc., a person’s “housing status” is not covered. If that was Ammiano’s real concern, a one-sentence bill adding the words “housing status” would have sufficed — and probably already been passed on a voice vote.
Next comes a litany of the mistreatments endured by the homeless, who’ve been denied:
- “Housing and employment as a result of not having a fixed or residential mailing address“;
- “The ability to make certain purchases or enter certain contests as a result of not having a fixed or residential mailing address….” (No Publishers’ Clearing House for you!);
- “Access to safe, clean restrooms, water, and hygienic supplies … especially with the proliferation of closures of public restrooms”;
And so on. Public shelters are chided for not properly respecting the “dignity” of lesbians, trans-people, pet owners, et al. The lack of adequate mental health services is also mentioned in passing, but merits no specific provisions in the bill.
The Privileged Underprivileged
Despite repetitious, long-winded assertions that new legislation is required to give the homeless equal protection under the law, AB 5 would actually afford vagrants special rights and immunities not enjoyed by the rest of us. These would include the right to:
- Remain in any public space “24 hours a day, seven days a week,” even after the “homed” must exit;
- Stand, kneel, squat, sit, lie down or sleep indefinitely on benches, sidewalks, etc.;
- Place or set down an unlimited quantity of personal possessions in public indefinitely;
- Store scavenged goods on public property for reuse and recycling;
- Representation by a public attorney for offenses & citations for which “homed” citizens do not receive free counsel;
- Prepare and share food, bathe, and attend to personal hygiene in public. The phrase “urinating in public” was struck in committee, but the broader provisions of the bill would still legalize it. (It’s a bit amazing that in the midst of drafting AB 5, Ammiano forgot that humans also produce large quantities of feces.)
Civil servants, who on their own initiative allow the homeless to make use of public buildings or who distribute public supplies to them, would be immune from punishment. Panhandling would also be decriminalized, on the grounds that the homeless have a “right to self-employment.”
Parks and Wreck
Panhandling and vagrancy have long been banned by cities, for good reason: they are anti-social behaviors that make a city unpleasant to live in or to visit.
Panhandling is begging, often done in an aggressive, threatening manner, something I’ve personally experienced. Traveling by BART to San Francisco one Friday night years ago, I exited onto a deserted Market Street and was immediately accosted by a panhandler. He ignored my “sorry, no change on me”, got into my personal space and started demanding dollar bills. I spent several, tense minutes staring him down, bracing for the fight he alluded to, before my ride showed up. Had I been a tourist, instead of visiting a new girlfriend, I likely would have written off San Francisco for good.
Vagrancy defeats the entire purpose of public parks and other areas: to provide aesthetically-pleasing spaces to be shared and enjoyed by all. Vagrants abuse and monopolize a public space by converting it into their private space, and in doing so, spoil its appeal and accessibility to others.
Yet, under AB 5, A city would be permitted to implement its local ordinances only if:
- Its county provides 24-hour “health and hygiene centers” for the homeless, and;
- The municipality does not lie within a federally-designated “area of concentrated unemployment or underemployment or an area of labor surplus”, and;
- “The public housing waiting list maintained by the county contains fewer than 50 persons.”
As the League of California Cities points out, all of these requirements are beyond the control of a city. Further, “AB 5 would create costly mandates, blur the line between local jurisdiction authority, and undermine the local decision making process.”
Now, this might be Tom Ammiano’s way of indirectly pressuring for social reforms, but it sure is a dumbass way to run a government.
The Beggars of Calcutta, California
Some on the Right would like to force vagrants to ‘take personal responsibility’ for themselves. The thing is, they have taken personal responsibility, and living on the street was what they came up with! These people are constitutionally incapable of doing better. If a quadriplegic fell overboard, you wouldn’t shout, ‘it’s sink or swim, buddy!’
Science writer Malcolm Gladwell explored the case of one homeless man in Denver, a substance abuser with personality disorders, who after years of repeated run-ins with the police and visits to the ER, froze to death. Gladwell ran the numbers on the cost of the public services expended on this one man, and discovered it would have been cheaper for the city to have given him an apartment and a full-time caretaker for life.
One might imagine such a ‘socialist’ approach appealing to Ammiano and his ilk. In truth, they are no different from the brahmins of Calcutta, perfectly fine with their lowest caste living in squalor.
A truly compassionate society would never consider permission to camp in parks a valid solution. Instead, vagrants would be removed from public spaces and placed in shelters. This would be compulsory, for the very act of choosing permanent homelessness indicates an incapacity to care or reason for oneself. Rather than being tossed spare change to buy Night Train, these fellow human beings would receive — in addition to proper shelter and basic amenities — professional treatment, counseling, and support for their addictions, mental conditions, or familial issues.
AB 5 is not a real solution, and it’s certainly not compassionate. At best, it’s demagoguery; at worst, a plan to convert our precious parks and plazas into lawless refugee camps. No sane society would contemplate such a step.
(c) 2013 by Matt Cavanaugh. All rights reserved.